Long Hard Winter

When Grampa Jim stayed in Michigan for the winter, his life was extremely hard.  It wasn’t until he reached his late seventies that mom insisted he come to live with us for the winter.  Even then, he would only last until March, and then one day he would disappear. He took a bus back to Coloma.  God only knows how he made it out to the farm from town.  Other times he took the train from South Chicago to Watervliet.

Gramps winterized the house for the really cold months.  The house didn’t have insulation, but did have storm windows.  The heat came from pot-bellied stoves.  One was in the living room, the other in the dining room.  To conserve heat, he hung a heavy blanket from floor to ceiling over the archway that separated the living room from the rest of the house.  This way, when he fired up the stove, the heat stayed in one room.   He closed the doors to the bedrooms to further seal off the big room.   His cot was in a corner. He pulled the dining room table into the opposite corner by the driveway and the front yard.  This gave him daylight from the windows on both walls.

Grampa Jim got icy cold water from a hand pump in the kitchen, and warmed it on the kerosene stove.  I remember seeing lots of coffee cans under his bed. Others were  by the door.  Some had fluid in them, some were dry.  He used the cans to save going outside to urinate.  The outhouse was  seventy-five feet away from the side door.  God knows what he did when the snow was deep.

Gramps didn’t weigh more that 120 pounds for his  five foot height. His diet was simple. During the winter he subsisted on canned foods like pork and beans and soups. Hot dogs were a treat.  He recycled the grease in his solitary fry pan. Sometimes, he soaked a slice of  rye bread in hot grease for a yummy meal. When he had kerosene, he warmed soup in the can.  Other times he warmed the soup can on the pot belly.

One of his vices was smoking, but in winter he never walked the quarter mile to the store to buy a pack of Camels.  There was always a sack of Bull Durham around, and he rolled his own. After he ran out of tobacco he scoured the ash trays for butts .  Friends and neighbors came by to check on him when they hadn’t seen him for a while.

The pot belly stove kept him from freezing;  he burned coal. It was a chore to drag a few pounds at a time from the basement in a coal bucket.  Winter on the farm was brutal, but he preferred living independently. He lived alone as long as he could. Eventually, he gave in to his daughter’s arguments, and came to spend winters in the city .

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